Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUNAWAY … a Molatto Fellow named PERO.”
“Said Pero, was born FREE of an Indian Woman, called Hannah Moree.”
Late in the summer of 1773, Samuel Turner of Hartford inserted an advertisement about “a Molatto Fellow named PERO” in the Connecticut Journal and New-Haven Post-Boy. Turner alerted the public that Pero an enslaved man who ran away and offered a reward for his capture and return. In enlisting the aid of readers in the surveillance of young men with darker skin, the enslaver provided a description of Pero that included his approximate age, height, and clothing. He also threatened that “All Masters of Vessels and Others are forbid harbouring, concealing, or carrying off said Fellow at their Peril,” suggesting that he would initiate legal action against anyone who assisted his human property in liberating himself.
Several weeks later, Oliver Collins and Benjamin Douglass challenged Turner’s version of events with advertisements of their own. Collins cited the issue in which he saw “an Advertisement sign’d Samuel Turner, offering Five Dollars Reward for taking up a Molatto Fellow, named Pero, whom the said Turner claims to be a Slave for Life.” Turner misled the public, according to Collins. He asserted that the young man, also known as Aaron, “was born FREE of an Indian Woman, called Hannah Moree.” As a young child, Pero had been “bound to me by Advice of Authority … per Indenture, bearing the Date the 16th of Nov. 1750.” Furthermore, the indenture ended five years earlier in 1768 when Aaron turned twenty-one. Collins pleaded with “all who have the common Feelings of Humanity, to yield their Influence and Assistance to protect the said Indian against all Attempts upon his just Liberty.” Turner attempted to leverage the power of the press to enslave Aaron, just as so many other colonizers did in their newspaper advertisements about enslaved people who liberated themselves, while Collins demonstrated that the press could be an instrument for extending and protecting freedom when colonizers chose to use it for those ends.
Advertisements alone, however, would not secure Aaron’s liberty. Benjamin Douglas turned to the courts in his efforts to aid the young man. Citing the same advertisement that Turner inserted “in this Paper, No. 308,” on September 10, Douglas declared his “full Conviction that Aaron Moree, a Molatto Fellow,” also known as Pero, “was free born.” Sympathetic to the young man pursued by Douglas and perhaps hounded by colonizers who recognized him from the advertisement, Douglas “commenced a Suit for the Trial of his Liberty, and taken him into my Service and Protection, until it shall be issued.” Ignoring Turner’s threats against anyone “harbouring, concealing, or carrying off” Aaron, Douglas issued his own warning to “any, who under the Influence of that Advertisement, may molest the said Aaron, that it shall be at their own Peril.”
Whatever Collins and Douglas’s views about enslaving Africans, African Americans, and Indigenous Americans more generally, they recognized the injustices in the case of Aaron Moree. Most advertisements concerning enslaved people published in the early 1770s sought to perpetuate their enslavement. In contrast, colonizers occasionally published newspaper notices that challenged slavery. In this instance, that challenge focused on an individual, yet it demonstrated that the press did not have to be the tool of enslavers exclusively.